Edward Tenner (The surprising relationship between technology and societal changes)
- 00:01:34 We were expecting the information and we got the enragement age. What Edward thinks of our Social Media landscape?
- 00:09:02 What are surprising ‘revenge effects’ of technology in recent history?
- 00:14:28 How close were the Romans in developing the steam engine? What impact do social developments have on our progress?
- 00:23:23 What impact does technology alone have on innovation?
- 00:27:10 Are information overload and increasing specialization two sides of the same coin?
- 00:39:36 Will we see the return of the heroic projects (like the Suez canal)?
- 00:56:35 Why did the communist innovation of the ‘5-Year-Plan’ succeed?
- 01:09:25 What will happen when the ‘Rise of the Machines’ starts?
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Edward Tenner is an independent writer, speaker, and consultant on technology and culture incl. The Future of Unintended Consequences. His latest book The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do is now available on Amazon.
Edward Tenner: The important important points. I am not at all in the camp of the Neoludites or the people who are really concerned that technology is depriving us of our humanity. Quite the contrary, I think that technology really reveals a lot about our humanity, reveals things that we didn’t realize, sometimes reveals unpleasant things about ourselves, for example, social media, how they highlight bullying, how they highlight extremism and the reason is that the people who run the sites have discovered that anger is the most powerful way to get people to pay more attention to the site and to so that lets them sell more advertising and so you have a bias toward real but unpleasant but partial sides of humanity. It’s the technology that brings them out but the technology didn’t create them. The technology didn’t create bullying, the technology didn’t create hatred but it does seem to mobilize people that way and I have a phrase that I haven’t yet used in print so I’ll introduce it here. We were expecting the information age but instead we have the inflammation age. We have because enrichment creates engagement. That could be that could be the motto of social media. Get people angry, get people arguing with each other, get people to join in, the hatred of comments and it doesn’t matter what the content is, people will just jump in and they’ll denounce each other and meanwhile you’re sitting back and counting the money as they fight among each other. There’s a friend of mine who published a paper recently in a computing and law journal about the status of the social media contracts under Anglo American common law and he believes that they’re unconscionable, that they’re void and this is not yet by the way been contested in a court so somebody could bring a suit and say that the end user agreement of Facebook or whatever is unconscionable. Now I have no idea of what judges would say about that but my friend is a retired partner in one of the largest law firms in the world. He is a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. He lectures to students in China so he’s not a marginal figure in the legal world and I don’t really agree with him on the unconscionability part but I think that he’s been really tremendously devoted to that and I give him credit for that. So we’ll see whether any influential journalist picks up on that and his name is Preston Torbert by the way so anybody who is interested can just google his name TORBERT and it was published in a journal I forget the exact name but a journal of technology and law. My view is that a technology really freed me to pursue my writing. Technology in the form of word processing and in the form of databases was what really gave me a second life as a writer and scholar. I was always somebody who revised a lot I remember in college I would make one draft after another I would type it on the typewriter I would read it and I would say no this isn’t right so I would type the whole paper again and for someone who works like that even the simplest word processing program running on a TRS80 was a revelation and while holding down a demanding job as a science acquisition editor one of the most competitive jobs in publishing I was able in my own time to resume the kind of writing that I had done as an undergraduate and to publish my first book and ultimately the writing took over from the editing and I had done what I had set out to do publishing other people’s work and now it was time for me to pay attention to my own and all of that was really made possible by the early availability of databases like Nexus Lexus at Princeton University and others so I could look through historical newspapers I could look through the back issues of magazines a lot of things that that had taken much more time in printed reference books could now be done almost instantaneously and I have been working on that ever since and developing new techniques for mining the the human record as as recorded in these databases.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah I was really excited to have you on Edward you are such an intricate student of history and the history of technology and you’re a master by now you’re not a student anymore but I think we’re all students going through life and you have really become famous for figuring out and you mentioned some already these hidden consequences of technology so we started technology we don’t know what we take out of this urn so speak right it’s a new innovation we don’t know what it actually does what it will do to us we introduce introduce us and we often have the best intentions we want to make money from it do we want to build an ecosystem around us and I think a lot of entrepreneurs think they make the world a better place and often it does but sometimes we in the process change things that we didn’t expect and I loved how you made the example with Facebook you know we can have ascribe bad intentions to Facebook but how I experienced the industry here in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s and after Facebook was just a company who wanted attention right they wanted to to have other people use their product and the way they designed this engagement algorithm was the only thing they could measure they could only measure certain clicks a certain how long you look at something and these basic limbic brain emotions turn out to be the things they could measure the more difficult ones if we like something if it’s scientific that the engagement algorithm that could attract us and then suddenly in 2014 2015 we all became I don’t know sucked into this algorithm we all just became slaves to it and the whole world changed and we turned against each other and I think that’s still going on right and I don’t think it’s was ever Facebook’s goal.
Edward Tenner: No it wasn’t it wasn’t and I don’t think they’re probably very comfortable about it but it’s very difficult for them to to change now because there isn’t any alternative model that would let them make as much money or nearly as much money doing things on the on the positive side another really interesting unintended consequence though was Google and the Google algorithm was was one of the most fascinating things that I’ve I’ve studied because it really started out not as a commercial project but as a theoretical academic curiosity a patented one of course and the the founders of Google actually at one point offered to sell the company to Yahoo for a million dollars yeah and even in 2002 I was at a scenario planning workshop for the Library of Congress at the Claremont resort resort in Oakland and there were all kinds of people from industries the the technology vice president of Sony for example was there a Stuart Brand from the the whole earth catalog was one of the people conducting this and one of the fascinating things looking back is how people saw that Google was providing a really valuable service but they didn’t see how it would ever be sustainable and at one point a participant when we were talking about possible scenarios one participant said well maybe maybe the government will we’ll have to we’ll have to take over Google and and now it’s more likely the other way around but that was the the that was the sentiment in in in 2002 and so the the way in which that that mutated and and Google became something very different the greatest advertising agency in history you know that that was something that nobody inside or outside the industry was forecasting in 2002 and even in 2005 when I started to write a column for the technology review which had just been taken over by Jason Ponton as as editor the the cover of that relaunch issue was Google and then there was a there was a kind of a graphic play on words like God but but for how long in other words Google was making this splash with their IPO but it was still not clear whether they would really become a you know a giant a giant company or stay a giant company and one of the things that I like about technology actually is how how unpredictable it is because sometimes a lot of the sometimes the the unpredictable things are among the most positive one sometimes the discoveries that take place as a result of disasters even show us the show us the way to improvements and we might not have taken those paths if there hadn’t been some failures so I am not a partisan of the precautionary principle because the precautionary principle if you really apply it rigorously would condemn us to a lot of the unintended consequences that that already exist and keep us from exploring exploring new things I think the secret and one of the things that is a theme in my work is that that instead of trying to eliminate all negative unintended consequences the real challenge is to to limit them to to experiment but to know when to quit not to do things in a way that will be irreversible and a lot of the worst things are actually those that that run away before people realize what was happening for example many of these invasive species that I wrote about and why things bite back were originally introduced by experts but the experts instead of being cautious about them uh oversold them and they treated them as miracle organisms that would create uh incredible industries and and then when uh when they ran wild uh they uh they said well we couldn’t have foreseen this and in a way they couldn’t but they could also have acted initially with much more caution.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah it seems technology and the way it interacts with us there’s just too many variables to really usefully predict it and you know in Silicon Valley there’s a lot of venture capitalists that’s basically all they do is predict the future and bad on it and it seems incredibly hard to get all these variables under control like even if the technology comes out and works and is working exactly like we predicted a couple of years earlier it seems like the technology adoption is a big question and on the other hand also will it ever be cheap enough and I remember that example with the steam engine I don’t know if you probably looked at this how long it was around and nobody really was too interested in it until someone and I think it was James Watts but correct me if that’s wrong he made it so easy to use it to become something you can apply to lots of different functions but the steam engine maybe could have been invented by the Romans but maybe they would have never had a real use case for it.
Edward Tenner: There is a paper that I cite in our own devices it was it was written by a British classicist named Horsefall H.O.R.S.F.A.L.L. and it’s called Rome Without Spectacles and it was about why the Romans who had the optical technology and science and skill with glass to create eyeglasses never never made eyeglasses and the reason that he gave was was not a technological but a social one that wealthy Romans had slaves to read to them there were literate Greek slaves who would you know who served the secretaries and and who could who could just recite books when when their their masters were were no longer were no longer able to read them and this was true of a lot of other Roman technologies for example the Romans had a wonderful skill in casting bronze letters and they also had extremely effective presses that they used for processing cloth one of them is very well preserved in in Herculaneum the great archaeological site but they never invented printing they the Romans could have invented printing from movable type and the reason for that again was in the nature of Roman society to be a literate Roman meant to read elegantly from scrolls and part of your prestige as a literate Roman was to be able to get up before your guests and and read poetry and and manipulate this scrolls with skill so this was a this was a this was as much a feature as a bug at the time it was the literacy was something that was really part of the the an elite skill set and one of the contributions of of Christianity was a democratizing reading and it was actually Ethiopian Christians who introduced the codex the the book the common book that that nearly everybody has now and there are only you know a few faiths Judaism and some others that that preserve their scriptures in in in scrolls but the the the idea behind the codex was that it was it was relatively cheap and compact it was easy to to to store and it became a tremendous success the Romans also the the the Christian the monasteries in the Middle Ages also introduced the idea of space between words in antiquity in Greece and Rome there were no spaces between words you were supposed to be able again reading from a scroll you were supposed to be able to break down the words fluently that was part of your skill as a literate person but in the early Christian world it was important to educate young men for the priesthood and and other clerical responsibilities so you needed you needed a kind of writing that was easier for beginners and this was the origin of books as we know them this is so fascinating it was a social innovation it was it was like it was a social innovation so a lot of what we think of as purely technological really turns out to be social let me give you another example yeah i’m often disturbed by people following following me too close on the road the technology exists so that nearly every car could be equipped with a signal that you’re following too close and it might even be equipped with a chip that would prevent you from following too close this would be an easy thing but people have an idea of their autonomy on the road and they don’t like their their freedom to tailgate and be involved in accidents to be limited so many things that would be beneficial and actually minimally invasive and annoying it wouldn’t have to be a buzzer it could just be a light that that came on on your dashboard many things that that would be very simple to introduce are not used and on the other hand there are there are all kinds of really really complicated things of doubtful use that are there because people in marketing believe that these will be selling points for the cars even though in use the actual benefits will be doubtful i saw that myself when i bought a home theater ab receiver i had been looking for this for for quite a while i my old television which was 20 years old the crt had failed and i bought a new 4k 4k television and i was looking for something to to power it with center channel and all of that so i bought i paid more than i had expected to but i thought at least i’m going to have a state of the art units and it had dolby this and dolby that it supported speakers not only on the sides but in the ceiling behind you and it had it had netflix it had it had a half dozen other streaming services the only thing it couldn’t do was to pair with my television set and i spent hours on the phone with the the retailer with the manufacturer of the television i wasn’t able to reach the manufacturer of the receiver and i had to send it back so the the priority is very often in industry is in proliferating features that people use to sell these and people think well the more features it has the better it is and yet they can also they can thereby skimp on things that are much more basic and important.
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah it seems there is this one time stream of technological progress that’s mostly in engineering science progress and then we have this whole different time stream that is sociological where we see the readiness to adopt new technology take advantage of it or maybe not there is always cultures and it’s very often hard to tell are you in an age right now where you are appreciating this technology where you you’re hungry for it you would love to introduce me you do whatever you can or you live in a time where you feel these innovations just create too much trouble so let’s stay away from them and they will die out right so there’s no entrepreneur can can survive if there was this i don’t know who who said it initially you don’t want to be as an entrepreneur somewhere where you’re tolerated you want to be somewhere where you’re celebrated and if it just tolerated then these things will never take off and your business won’t go anywhere because you need an amazing month of support basically this wave that comes into the to the harbor and supports you yeah um when we when you look at influences how society changed over time in order to be more more open to this or maybe not for good reasons where are these trigger points do you feel religion is a big impact do you feel it is it is something that that is more random what can be what can be used to predict if we did say the next 50 years the next 100 years will be more or less open.
Edward Tenner: It’s almost impossible to predict 50 years ahead i i have studied the history of futurism and that’s an oxymoron is it well no it’s it’s actually it’s it’s it’s virtually it’s virtually a discipline i wrote i’ve written at least three or four essays about about futurists and futurism and and the the specialist consultants who call themselves um not necessarily futurists but but they are they investigate scenarios so the the real futurists are not the people who are quoted in the popular press and saying in 25 years we will all do this or do that but there there are people who advise uh corporations on the on possibilities for the future you know one of them being a a pandemic for example that was very often mentioned the the problem with that kind of futurism though is that that while quite a few people predicted a global pandemic they really didn’t anticipate the specific features that have made covet 19 uh such a such a tragic event uh that is the the spread by asus asymptomatic people for example they what not i looked back at the people who who were saying watch out the a pandemic is coming and they uh for example they predicted that the united states would do very well but uh third world countries would would really bear the brunt of it and to some extent that is true that when you read about the the uh the rates of infection in India and brazil but there are other countries in the developing world that have had relatively low rates and there are so many surprises in the nature of the virus and how it spreads you remember in the early days people were were underestimating the aerosol factor and they were fixating on on surfaces so even now if you return a library book in my community it will it will stay in a special place for disinfection for for a couple of days before it goes back on the shelf even though there is no evidence of anybody anywhere uh getting a case of uh coronavirus from from a library book but it’s it’s something that has this this this this symbolic symbolic value so what what happens is that even though people may may predict some very important features what happens is that the prediction is just partial when you look more closely there were other things that they didn’t predict that really affect the outcome and that that make the really reduce the value of the prediction.
Torsten Jacobi: One of the things you mentioned in your books is the role of information overload so we have that crazy amount of information that we can access within the heartbeat’s time but it it didn’t at least until now when we when we say the timeline was somewhere in the 90s when the internet really took off but we always that the books books before that the printing press they were all devices that gave us access to more information why don’t we see that impact on productivity growth in a positive way from this information overload that we especially enjoyed the last 30 years.
Edward Tenner: Well there there are a couple of sides to that that question one is that historians who have looked at the fear of information overload have found instances that go back at least to the 18th century and you can you can find some examples in the 17th century there are so many books it’s impossible to know all of this it’s impossible to read them all and then in the 19th century I discovered that at the at the peak of popular education in Europe when the school systems were being built out when more and more students were pursuing secondary school and university studies when the number of printed books was multiplying new university programs were starting people were really concerned that that everybody was turning into bookworms and that they were for example that they were ruining their eyes so one of the lasting results of that was the architecture of many school rooms with with tall windows and that was the result of studies that I related in my chapter in in our own devices on on eyeglasses how leading ophthalmologists were so concerned that students were were weakening their eyes by by by reading too much so the kind of overload of the number of publications has to be qualified in some ways and one way to qualify that is to say that the consequence of that in part has been the the development of of increasing specialization so there was always there were always more books for example on the on the french revolution and and source materials than any one person would be able to to master but the way that academia grew was that that there were other people then who started to study the revolution of revolutions of 1830 which I did for my dissertation and other people who study the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris commune so and then there were all kinds of methodological new disciplines there was women’s studies african american studies these overlapped with with existing fields so what what I think happens in academia from what I’ve seen is that as knowledge grows specialties also develop and and so there there may even be an iron law that everybody’s professional fate in science and scholarship depends on about 50 colleagues there are about 50 people no matter how many no matter no matter how much higher education grows there are 50 people who have something like your specialty 50 people who are possible reviewers for your your book 50 people who might be writing letters to your dean about whether you are the most qualified person for this job or to somebody else’s dean if you’re if you’re applying for another job so I think that although there is this proliferation of knowledge that you could measure it by the number of books in the library of congress or the number of of you know terabytes that that are available on in various texts on the web there is also an adaptation in society that that actually blunts this effect except by the way except for people like me who try to try to get into too many things.
Torsten Jacobi: You’re like an yeah like an AGI I this is maybe the argument what you won’t see an artificial general intelligence anytime soon because it’s just so much information but I like the way you put this so if we feel we have to go into a stronger specialization which I think pretty much everyone agrees right now there’s very few contrarians who say that’s not the case we we change our economy and becoming more creative and more specialized but we work together easier because the collaboration has gotten easier we can do this worldwide this in turn will lead to more information overload because we can afford more information because we need it right because each field kind of produces produces their own body of knowledge yes it needs to be ignored everyone else in order to make sense.
Edward Tenner: yes and there are also institutions for dealing with it for example there are there are there are there are many more meta analyses of research being published and there is also text and data mining and and one of the big issues is is like the copyright status of of of databases do you do you have the right commercially to mine them or is that is that a is that a separate a separate right so so the the proliferation of information brings with it all kinds of social and institutional and legal issues and consequences but we have managed through all of these to to to keep this explosion under control.
Torsten Jacobi: yeah i guess the modern equivalent of this is instead of reading a book you read the headline of an abstract that talks about the book on twitter so i mean it was it was definitely and you know one one it’s a sentence that sticks with you but you can keep thousands of people you can maybe remember if you have a good memory i don’t a few thousand of such annotations so you know what this person stands for right this is maybe what would we have to which is quite a skill right it’s it’s great because when you need that person we can reach out to that person or research more.
Edward Tenner: yes well i have i have i have a personal database of of many many gigabytes consisting of downloaded articles to which i assigned my own metadata and uh i will very often i i can’t read more than a small fraction of the books that i see reviewed and look interesting but i will make a note for future times when i might be writing about this topic that you know here was a book that appeared in 2016 uh that was well reviewed and is a is a good introduction to this subject so i can’t read these books as they’re repairing but i can get an overview of what’s out there and so when it comes time for me to write about it i can i can uh i know where to look and this is a skill that i developed as a science editor as a science editor i had to follow a lot of research in many fields when i was the only science editor and so i learned how to read the literature in a certain way to identify the personalities who seemed most promising as book authors who were not necessarily always the most acclaimed people as researchers some of them were but very often they were people who were not famous for original contributions but had a very elegant and original way of of looking at things .
Torsten Jacobi: Yeah one of the people you wrote about i guess you admire him too is richard feinman one of the uh most gifted scientists um that we’ve ever had when you look at richard feinman and his genius what do you think he would do today what would he tell us today if he would be alive.
Edward Tenner: Oh that’s that’s a challenging question i published feinman’s last scientific book QED and i was able to do that because i had a very primitive but effective uh intelligence service in the form of subscribing to the printed announcements of lectures at colleges and universities around the united states and so i saw a ucla bulletin again delivered in the us mail before the web that richard feinman was going to be giving a series of lectures and i knew that feinman’s regular publisher was norton uh but i thought well and and also that the university of california press might be the publisher which often happens when people have given a series of lectures but i thought it couldn’t hurt for me to uh to ask and so i got in touch with not with feinman directly but with the the dean who uh sponsored this new endowed lecture series and what he told me was that uh the lectures existed only as videos uh and that the book was uh that it was available he didn’t mention this but uh norton uh was not able to work with the transcript of the videos and neither i learned later was the university of california press so the question is how do you uh edit uh edit how do you edit feinman you you really needed somebody who could uh who could work with him uh but but how do you how do you find someone and it turns out there there was an absolutely obvious choice because the son of feinman’s collaborator on the feinman lectures in physics the the one who edited them uh was uh what was also a friend of feinman’s and so he was a perfect person to work with feinman and to turn the video lectures into a book and the book sold 500 000 copies so when that happened i had kind of i had mixed feelings i was very happy that we got the book and that it did so well but i also realized that i was not going to get uh any more books from feinman because uh sadly feinman was was uh was was dead by the time the book appeared that was his last scientific book and i think that was a turning point for me in in 1986 five years before i left publishing that said well i’ve done what i set out to do i always wanted to publish feinman and now it’s time for me to turn to something else and and and turn to my own my own work now as far as what what feinman would say i think feinman had such an elegant way of of looking at things that that unfortunately in order for somebody to say what feinman would have said they would have to be uh almost another feinman and we we we don’t have anyone we don’t have anyone like that now but he had i think he had a a really um this this wonderful uh wonderful direct intuition about things that that very few other other people have had.
Yeah one of the things we seem to have abandoned and you wrote about those plenty are the heroic projects like the panama canal the sewers canal yes um the orion spacecraft which very few people know about the just going to the moon sputnik all these things that seem to be common stands in certain time periods 60s 30s and then in 1900s will we ever have them back or do we have them we just our eyes are not open to them that’s something i’ve thought about a lot a friend of mine uh frank davidson was the president of something called the macro engineering society and he was a backer of uh and student of big projects his brother whom i met in paris was the lawyer for the channel tunnel project so the channel tunnel may have been the last of the heroic uh infrastructure uh uh projects of that of that kind and of course financing is a huge part of it a number of things i think are involved in that and the first is that so many of these projects were undertaken without realizing how difficult they were going to be and when i was at the institute for advanced study i knew a uh i knew a uh a great economist who uh elbert herschman who had a phrase called the the uh the hiding hand not the invisible hand but the hiding hand by the hiding hand he meant that if people knew how hard many enterprises were going to be they wouldn’t have started but because they were ignorant uh they went ahead and they found the means to realize what they were they were doing that this was something like what happened with the panama canal for which i i wrote a piece for the the neh uh neh magazine uh so once it gets started then then human resourcefulness steps in but sometimes it doesn’t the first panama canal company failed so you really almost needed one company to fail for for somebody else to to take that up so i think that one of the things that’s happened maybe is that there’s a different attitude and people are now uh much more rational about their calculations that that so many of those things required a certain kind of of romanticism that uh maybe as a result of technology and the ability to project costs more accurately uh we we are not able to uh to delude ourselves into into big things that possibly could turn out to be extremely productive uh there is also projects typically long term productive the short term maybe they they’re a nightmare right like the channel project but in the long term are they are there’s so many that we may be known to remember that are not productive they all seem crazy productive to me well we of course we we forget about the ones that didn’t work out and i wrote i wrote a review of a book called the shock of the old about the prevalence of old technologies by a british military historian named david edgerton and one of the things i pointed out was the number of fundamental inventions that would seem to be about to transform life for example uh example high temperature superconductivity was going to revolutionize power transmission i remember that from the late eighties and i was at a physics meeting where that was announced and everybody was was really uh over the moon about the the possibilities and yet it turned out that there were there were lots of technical problems so so far who knows in the future they may be realized but but so far they haven’t done what people expected magnetic levitation trains the you know the latest trains that we’ve seen are really on the conventional uh flanged you know flanged wheel on steel rail now incrementally we have much better alloys for the wheels we have all kinds of improvements in the rails we have sensors that will detect uh failing rails at one point you needed trackwalkers the the american railroads had had hundreds maybe thousands of men who walked along every every yard of track and inspected it visually uh and then there were cars that came along special rail cars with measuring instruments that could that could do that electronically so we’ve we’ve we’ve automated a lot and yet the basic principle of the flanged wheel on the steel rail has has remained the same because the more radical things really were not able to compete with it you wrote about the other extreme maybe it’s not really an extreme quite a bit it’s this american pragmatism it’s this this forward looking self fulfilling positive prophecy it’s this almost i kind of trace it back sometimes to the old testament but it’s something that you know the new testament has as well there’s a reason we had the mayflower and the reason we we had the new haven when the first settlers came over is that something where you feel we’ve lost that a little bit since we divided ourselves from religion even more than it was a hundred years ago or do you feel we’re still having seeing this as a core value that that really makes america stand out well i think i think pragmatism is still a still a a big feature of of american life although it has been eroded somewhat by the the uh i think to some extent artificial polarization that we have i say artificial polarization because if we had a multi party system uh there would not be the same level of of acrimony the the multi party system plus the primaries gives a disproportionate weight to people who are who are the most passionate on each side and so it sometimes results in outcomes that really go against what the majority what the majority believe in european systems there are other problems there are problems forming coalition so i’m not saying it’s utopian but the advantage is that that you you don’t get the same degree of extreme polarization you certainly have have some and one of the ironies now we’re coming to social unintended consequences is that that the primary elections which were supported by progressives as a way to bring power to the people away from party bosses uh have actually given party to the power to the people but but very often to the people who are most passionate and and extreme in their views and and so uh it’s it’s unlikely for example that in the absence of of of primaries uh you know that donald trump would have been elected elected president or that that he would have such such strong support as as he has now but as long as there are so many people who passionately believe in a candidate it is very very hard for people to oppose them because primary has become a verb that that people are threatened with being primaries so to me that’s a really good illustration of how a well intentioned reform in the long run can turn against the very people who uh originally proposed it yeah i mean the road to hell is paved with good intentions yeah and i grew up in in eastern germany and i feel from that’s what i learned from my parents who really believed in the socialist utopia is that they had a lot of positive intentions and they they kind of are true believers all the way to the end you know they kind of still are to an extent and it is something that was clearly not going to work economically at least you could see that in the early 70s and it was only a small part of the population that was still hanging on to this and we we saw this in the late 80s when suddenly in a small country of 17 million 13 million were on the street like just like that nobody today tomorrow 13 million on the street and let’s let’s change this right so is this this this odd balancing between and i think the socialism experiment showed this is really nicely which let’s give them the credit and and the benefit of the doubt that this is a positive intention of a utopia but someone this utopia doesn’t arrive and it very quickly turned into a nightmare this balancing on i think we all have this right we say someone says something that has seems like a positive intention but do we know if this is the real attention we do not right so we need to take people not just at the ward but at the actions over time when these things need to play out and i feel the the extra extremism we see in the us is maybe good because it shows us all the possible scenarios on the sides and usually we get scared and we come back to the middle that doesn’t really happen in europe so much their system is more based on not having a very open discussion of coming together quicker but then it’s leaving and alienating a big parts of society that never have to say they never get their prime their moment in prime light which happens in the us right we go crazy before the elections and then six months later we forget about it yeah i agree i agree completely i just i was just reading in financial times about wirecard and the the crisis of the uh the the uh the german you know the german governments and involvement in it so so there are there are some americans think of europe as a kind of utopia of rational people who are totally honest and and transparent and uh and and to me that’s just a mirage what i have been studying uh i’m i’m in the i’m beginning to write a an essay about this is the history of five year plans uh and that’s a good one yeah i haven’t studied i haven’t studied that in the in the gdr so far uh but the the the the reason was that china has just announced its 14th five year plan but the five year plans have have been a little less popular as such but one of the interesting there were two interesting things that i found about five year plan so far one is that the five year plan after the second world war was actually adopted not only by france and and other western nations but by by many american corporations so it was one of those cases in which a communist communist innovation helped take over for at least for a time capitalism but there was another thing too and that is that that one of the great anti communist books of all times was friedrich hayek’s uh the road to serfdom and some people might think that the road to serfdom is about the gulag about the confiscation of properties suppression of of liberties and hayek certainly dwells on those things but the interesting thing was that his attack was really on planning and the idea of a planned society in a planned economy something that he found also in in fascist countries and the point that hayek was making was that the chaos and uncertainty of a liberal society was really necessary because no planner could really foresee all of the complications that arise in reality and therefore it is better that enterprises and and maybe people should fail than a than than a government that tries to think of itself as all wise should should try to plan everything which he argued was what led to tyranny and he had a wonderful phrase for that he said that the the the ultimate the ultimate backing of of a of capitalism of a liberal society is the bailiff the ultimate backing of communism is the hangman uh so so it was a but on the other hand there was a one of the reasons he wrote that was in the 1930s there was tremendous prestige in planning and a view of many uh idealistic young people in america and elsewhere that in the midst of this terrible unemployment in western countries the soviets through their five year plans were really getting things right they nobody was nobody was unemployed businesses were not failing everything was allocated uh everything was uh what was fair and uh and so forth and i could see how somebody confronted with the chaos of capitalism during the thirties that was that was so appealing and many of these people of course later uh in the in the 1950s uh turned against communism there was that famous book the god that’s failed but the the appeal uh i think was was based on a on a it was based on a on a flawed perception but in a way it was correct in the sense that there was no unemployment that that people might have to accept the job that was given them but that that uh that no jobs could always be created uh to keep people from being classified as as as unemployed uh i never i actually i visited east berlin once when i was a a day a day student in in heidelberg in the uh in 1968 69 we had a there was a conference there and so i i was able to you know i crossed over at checkpoint charlie and changed some money and visited a few a few museums but it seemed to be the the uh it was a it was a weird the berlin there was it was a kind of weird weird society because everybody looked so um they were they were not their their body language was different they were they were just kind of going as though they were going to some appointment it wasn’t it wasn’t what this kind of street traffic that you would see in in in west berlin and uh and i’ve always i’ve always wondered whether that was just berlin or whether my presence as an obvious uh american or or west non non gdr citizen was was what made people uh avoid me but it was it was an interesting experience well they they say common is what rops you of your personality because you’ve become this cock in the machine you’re not made in the image of god you’re made in the image of men and what that means it’s really this this shrinking down to this is your your position and it’s being defined not by god but by someone who basically puts you there right so it’s it’s not even your parents it’s typically part of this bureaucracy that was built in these communist countries and that you don’t have any the unalienable rights they don’t exist and and for that reason you you kind of avoid any communication you avoid any confrontation you avoid anything that isn’t efficient so to speak obviously that appeals to germans right so they love this and so the the efficiency idea that you can’t be more efficient when you plan i think that’s a given it is true right so it’s trying an error this constant producing stuff in excess and doing it in in thousands of ways that are wrong seems ridiculous and it kind of is but only in a five year perspective or in a one year perspective whatever their short time frame is then planning and executing on a good plan is way better it’s like a company right once you have your product and your market fit you’re good to go but then five years later things have changed or six months later you need to readjust and then that’s when you get killed all the time yeah and every company learns this sooner or later that they need to readjust and these countries for some reason didn’t learn it because they set philosophy a strange philosophy that was very frozen in place on top of this so they could never recover from it yeah and china has a different way and has found a different way amazingly right and i attribute this and i’m curious on your thoughts the the rise of china and especially the economic rise maybe it’s a bit like the soviet union we don’t see what actually is going on in china that’s possible i mean i went to china i’m not sure i found much out it kind of looks like anywhere else in asia to be honest but it it probably exists because the us is less competitive we don’t have this we don’t form ourselves against something else we kind of took ourselves out of the competition we are like this this extreme marathon runner who says okay i won all the contests and i’m done i retire and i feel like we’re slowly coming out of retirement now yeah i think that that china is is it’s really unique in a lot of ways for example uh the the soviet union was very proud of its multinational composition and even though the the the great russians dominated it uh there was room for ukrainians like khrushchev there was room for people from from central asia uh the the one of the reasons for the breakup of the soviet union was that that the constituent republics had the right to declare independence so it was a it was a uh it was it was in principle an extremely democratic democratic constitution but the the difference i think is that that uh china has become a a a superpower with with minimal import of of of foreign talent except for ethnic chinese who have been who have been educated elsewhere and it is it is really uh very very openly devoted to to uh creating one a single chinese identity the the kind of an opposite of any kind of federalism or or or diversity and that has a lot of positive features for china because i think that that people especially given the the ruthless exploitation of of china and oppression of china in the 19th and 20th centuries people have a have a well grounded uh your reason to uh to assert assert national pride except you can you can take any good thing too far but the other really interesting thing about china is the way in which uh it can combine marxist leninist orthodoxy with a flourishing but uh but but uh tamed and supervised private sector uh so it’s given up that kind of central planning of the soviet five year plans the new five year plan is really even the chinese word has changed i i read it’s more like guidelines it’s really no longer uh we’re allocating so much for this and so much for that it’s like uh here is here is what we really want to do as a society so it it has been it has been incredibly incredibly successful and i’m not one to predict anything about its future however i should say on a personal note that for my last book the efficiency paradox the only translation we have sold so far is into chinese and it’s just appeared in shanghai and it it was actually a uh it was it was a it was a decent a decent amount so i have i i have a a lot of positive things to say about about uh about china based on my own own uh own experience on the other hand i’m wondering how long china can continue its rise for example if even members of the elite outside the party don’t have access to major western publications i was at a dinner uh at a uh at a at a club in new york and uh my host was a professor of uh of social science and his guest was one of the leading uh the leading social scientists of china and this man said that that in china even he a professor at a major university does not have access to the new york times for example so how can a country uh hope to uh to dominate if even members of its own elite are not really free to examine uh ideas from outside yeah uh and i don’t know how they’re going to deal with that it won’t almost by definition but it takes a long time right to this until this materializes this weakness once you move away from the truth and i think china has been doing this for quite some time and you eventually pay a price that might be another 10 20 30 years but the day is coming and there’s a bunch of books pdc and writes about that here’s a very interesting thesis from a geopolitical standpoint what will happen to you know the the war on doesn’t have to be a hot war but the the conflict of the big geopolitical powers in the next 20 years one thing i wanted to ask you going into a slightly different topic a lot of people say that technology itself has like an agenda so it seems to as much change us as we appreciate these new innovations there is people sometimes describe it not scientific describe this to say an alien technology that wants to wants us to build spare parts that someone gave us all this subconsciousness we made all these big developments relatively small time frame and we have all these these it seems to go some places we can say well it’s just random mess but maybe technology is leading us somewhere that we ever had this impression i i don’t favor that view i and the reason i don’t is that that it doesn’t look at all the directions technology could have gone in in other words it things look inevitable but actually they’re the result of choices that people powerful people corporate leaders government leaders make in which technology to pursue which technology not to pursue so there wasn’t in the for example the the first five year plan was in the uk in the 1880s and it was for the construction of more battleships to meet the challenge of the rise of german naval power well you could say that the the the battleships had a had a momentum that the technology of warfare was was evolving by its own logic and forcing people to to uh to uh to follow but you could also say that this was a cultural thing based on the attitudes of the people who were running germany the people who were running britain and that the technology could have developed along totally different lines you you the another world would would be possible where you didn’t have naval rivalries where you had much more international cooperation where the the money could have been invested in in other things so it’s true that in in some areas for example in in in the development of of micro computers there was a kind of built in technological agenda of miniaturization and it’s it’s really been absolutely amazing when you consider the um the power the computing power of the iphone that i’m using now for this interview you would not have had anything like that in a cre super computer of the 1980s which needed its own uh water water cooling supply if you if people are talking about inflation but this is a kind of amazing negative inflation there wouldn’t have been any way to make a an iphone at any price in the in the 1980s so maybe we are we are just taking too much for granted the the miracles of of our own time i personally am very very conscious of this because i lived through that period when uh when the uh when when people were were boasting about these these super computers and and uh and i i think uh that it it’s people should really uh be much more grateful for what they what they have uh and uh and in some ways they could say well people think of income as being diminishing but in in some ways if you think of all the benefits that you can get from a smartphone uh our our income has been increasing for example i uh i often will use a uh chess program called stockfish uh to practice and stockfish is is really is is about as strong as any grandmaster in the world and here i’m able to use it free i don’t even have to use the web it all the calculations are done on on on my iphone uh and there are other chess programs and there are programs that will that will that will tutor you so even though i lose every game of course uh it’s it’s a it’s a challenge for me to see how long i can last uh i i’ve never been able to get it to a draw and i don’t think i ever will be able but i i it amuses me to see how i can construct the most uh apparently impregnable defensive structures and the program has a kind of can opener that can can can find a weakness there there is always some some little gap there that it knows how to uh how to exploit and even though i’m losing it’s a tremendously amusing thing for me to see how this machine is outsmarting me chess is a very good example when the first battles between a i and the grandmasters came around it was described and it’s depending on the algorithm but eventually the researchers came up with algorithms where other chess players would look at it and say oh well there’s an intuition this isn’t just some we calculate all the odds and that’s especially now true for alpha girl they feel like this machine has an intuition it kind of knows it without calculating all the different odds which was initially the strategy it kind of knows what’s happening do you feel the same when you when you play chess yourself you observe the same thing now and will are you worried about this what machines will what will soon will happen right machines will promise all the problems we can think of there will be the better solution there will still be stuff left for us but yeah i thought of that i thought of yes i thought i thought of that quite a bit and i should say that that that sometimes like i i have seen magic acts acts called cold reading where the magician appears to know things about the spectator that clearly involved mind reading i saw when i was at ted the last time i was at ted there was one of these mentalists and he he found out things about somebody in the audience that i nobody there could understand how he was able to to know that nobody and yet he did not claim to have magical powers and there is undoubtedly a irrational explanation for his his technique so to me this effect of course who can say whether or not it’s real but it it could be that the programs can create a convincing illusion of intuition which is not the same as having as having real real intuition uh and one of the ways that you could sometimes see this is when uh when an ai program makes a mistake and it makes a mistake that a person would never have made for example when when the the uh the ibm uh watson program uh was on jeopardy uh it you know how that works by by multiple not the way a human being would would would approach a problem but there are there are multiple algorithms that run in parallel and that take a vote just as in airplanes uh like airbus there are multiple guidance systems with different hardware program differently with different programming languages that vote so that it’s inevitable that there’s a glitch in one program or the other but it is almost uh impossible that the same glitch will occur simultaneously in three or four different programs at at at the same at the same point boy must have used a different system well that’s that’s another another question so they did use a different system actually so uh so the the uh uh the one of the questions though about the location of airports in canada was something that you could kind of know by by minimal geographic knowledge in common sense it was one of the easiest questions and yet uh watson watson failed that one and and succeeded with its massive databases with more with more uh with more complicated ones so uh so i have i am still in the in the skeptical category about certain certain things about about ai although uh i i don’t doubt that there are there are many others that will really astound us but i don’t think we should believe that just because it does some things astoundingly well that it can necessarily do everything astoundingly well yeah well this that famous quip someone said whenever we can’t explain something we think it’s magic or it’s god that seems to be the only things that fit that fit in there and we we we certainly over attribute this all the time but but the the funny part is all this ai is we don’t really know why it works i mean the the original model nobody really knows why it works so it’s it’s we we know there’s statistics involved but none none of the research researchers knows and so the model can’t talk to us nobody can nobody can say okay this is right yeah that’s right yeah this body of of why answers right because nowadays we can go to a human and more or less the human will be pressed to come over the why answer or you yeah be able to find your research right yes yes you will you will don’t get the human recognition yeah for machines it will never be a problem and then when we go back to intentions right where we say okay we believe you you have a good intention so i believe you um or bad intention still think it will work out with machines we can never do this right they just they kind of plot these things out we take it we’ll be happy about it but that’s great but we can never double check the intentions or the why problems isn’t that boring some yeah well i i think that that um that part of machine learning is is this um this like a pattern pattern matching through through repeated repeated repeated efforts and it i think it will be hard for example for a machine and an AI that was learning how to distinguish dogs dogs from cats to explain uh what what is there that is like diagnostic for being a a cat rather than a dog uh it it just has has kind of created some some rules for dogginess and and and cattiness and they’re they’re they’re extremely uh they they work extremely well now what what the the the big issue of course is that the western idea of science as you know is really one that that is based on transparency and it’s based on on uh on the ability to explain just just how something works now there there have been exceptions for example newtons breakthrough uh in in the theory of of gravity was that he abandoned these metaphysical ideas about what was happening and he said you know look he said he said we i don’t make hypotheses that is i don’t construct these grand schemes that other philosophers have done but i can tell you that that bodies obey these laws and the laws can be expressed mathematically and that’s it we can’t so excuse me so so in a lot of ways newtons revolution was a kind of modesty and and not trying to understand uh ultimate ultimate causes and and maybe sometimes AI is is working like that yeah so it’s more modest that’s interesting i never looked at it that way that’s very interesting a lot of people i don’t know if you ever looked into this it is very specific the principles of flight are apparently not fully understood yes we know there’s a certain pressure system but there seem to be a lot of open questions that many physicists don’t have an answer for i don’t actually i saw that that’s the article i saw and i’m like whoa that’s a hundred years i’d like i’d like yeah i’d like yeah i would i’d like to i’d like the reference to that and it reminds me of the of the excuse me i have a slightly sore throat it reminds me of of what i once read i was i was reading about friction and how long it took for physicists to understand and friction and it was also there were many other familiar things in everyday life that were understood only long after people were able to calculate the the the movement of the planets and the and the and and galaxies that that that some very obvious everyday things turn out to be extremely difficult to explain when you when you look at them in detail and i’ve read that about about about flight so i’m interested in the in a in a reference to that but but every once in a while we read about other things that have been familiar generally accepted and in the textbooks and then somebody does some more experimental work and he says hey wait a minute this is not what we were what we were planning and that’s one of the things i really love about science that it is always open to these surprises and that there are so many opportunities for creative researchers to challenge even ideas that were once apparently so solid i think that’s that is the the best kind of unintended consequences but i could i should also mention something that i read about about scientific research that that the researcher for example in the studies of subatomic particles in in accelerators the the researcher is hoping for not for confirmation of an existing theory but for some big surprise but the people who fund the research want the research to to to prove something so there is a there is a tension between the the the sponsor and the investigator yet that’s really interesting because a lot of current science you basically have to exactly predict what you’re doing and then it’s funded in milestones and then if it doesn’t go along you’re in trouble because the next milestone won’t come around because you didn’t find what you were looking for and you can’t actually tell people well i’m just going to play around with this collider for a year and see what happens which is probably the better approach in the instance if you have these open problems exactly when i was a a science editor i spoke with a geophysicist at a major western university and he had written something that i thought would be the basis of a really really good book and he he agreed he would like to work on this but he said that he wasn’t able to because he had to think of his graduate students so here was somebody who was i think he was in his 40s he had tenure he had a he had a major lab and one of the unintended consequences of the system was that he had been so successful in getting funding for his lab and attracting graduate students and postdocs that now he was a prisoner of his own success and so even though somebody in that position might believe that they have really they have really discovered most of what was to be discovered and they reached a point of diminishing returns it is very hard for them to switch this is something that i’m working on now as part of my project on on on time horizons in everyday life that that there is something like a natural rhythm of learning how to do something and then taking it to the highest level you can and then sustaining it at a high plateau for a few years but afterwards there is a fallout it’s like it’s like a mine it’s like a mine where you have a mother load and you can keep mining it and mining it and the ore gets lower and lower grade but meanwhile you have this mine and so you’re you have to keep crushing the ore and and extracting extracting less less and less from it so it i think it’s become harder for people to break out of that and to shift their interest to a new side of their discipline but i’ve spoken with three or four uh colleagues and friends of mine in academic life in the humanities as well as the sciences and social sciences and they all describe experiences like that that they they they had an idea they pursued it but then after some time it was time to move on but in moving on you’re not going to something entirely new what you’re doing is you’re taking ideas and concepts that you developed in your previous phase and you’re carrying them forward so they they form a kind of new endowment for you in the in the new phase of your research do you think we will see maybe we change some of these patterns or there’s some new paradigm coming along we will see another Cambrian explosion of knowledge in the next 20 to 30 years do you do you feel we are just at this cast board it’s just going to be very similar to what we’ve seen the last 50 years there is a an economic historian that i know Joel Mokir who was writing about the idea that we have picked the low hanging fruit of science and technology and he said that that with the new tools that we’re developing we can build taller ladders i really like that metaphor in other words we when you when you see the instruments that are available to scientists now we’re just thinking in in genetic sequencing and and how quickly we were able to develop vaccines so what what gives me hope is that the instruments that are are being developed now will let us answer all kinds of questions that we couldn’t have dreamed of answering before the downside of that though is that sometimes although sometimes the equipment becomes much more democratic and the price is lowered very often at the frontier you need exponentially more in order to get to the next phase so the the the next supercollider is going to be much more expensive than the last one and and ultimately you might need a supercollider half the size of the of the solar system to to study the the the next phase do you think we need we talked about that earlier a little bit we should come together and kind of have a new Manhattan project we there is these and maybe those are just a winner so obviously we have to be careful but we kind of we’re in the business of printing trillions of dollars right now maybe we should just take a few billion hundred billion and throw it at something where we really don’t know the outcome but it’s big enough if it works it’s going to change the phase of this planet to the better well I you know I I I haven’t yet seen any project that I would put in that in that category although in principle I agree with you I think we should we should look out for long shots with with with incredible benefits but it’s a elevator or fusion right those would be candidates yeah there’s fusion now fusion is a local specialty here at Princeton I know friends at the plasma physics physics lab so so fusion is one of those things though that that people have been dismissing for a long time but they could suddenly could suddenly come to the forefront and maybe fusion is one of those fields in which we should be putting in which we should be putting even more money certainly the people at the plasma plasma physics laboratory in Princeton could make a good case for that they’re right down the road for me by the way yeah yeah that’s exciting do you get the chance to like hang out with them and see what they have yes I visited there yeah yeah I knew I know rush rush hold who was the congressman he was a he was a physicist there and he ran for congress his family had been in politics so so I knew rush and I’ve known I’ve had other other other friends there they had a wonderful program now suspended called science on Saturday and they had all kinds of visiting speakers for for high school students mainly but also for members of the community who were talking about their research that’s where I heard the the the founder of the Watson project speak excuse me I think that’s all I had Edward well thank you I’ve enjoyed this really please send me the references me too me too thanks for coming on the podcast it was awesome I really enjoyed it thank you I was great you asked wonderful questions I wish I had I wish I had better answers but those were the best those are the best I could do it again in two years and I’m sure you have way more answers that I have questions well well I’ll be looking forward to that so thank you thank you very much see me at work thanks a lot really appreciate it bye bye bye bye bye bye bye